Why does Raúl Grijalva matter for public lands and the environment?

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah (left) and Rep. Raul. Grijalva, D-Tucson, usually are on opposite sides of environmental issues. But Grijalva, incoming chairman of the powerful House Committee on Natural Resources, is optimistic they can work together on some things. (Photo by Imani Stephens/Cronkite News)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The Trump administration and Congress have systematically dismantled many Obama-era environmental regulations. Now, Democrats finally have control of the House and the committee with the most power over public lands – the House Committee on Natural Resources. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona will be the new chairman, and he couldn’t be more different from his predecessor.

For one, Grijalva has been one of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s most vocal critics. Over the past few years, he has questioned Zinke about his spending on office furniture, his approach to shrinking Bears Ears National Monument, and about whether he suppressed scientific findings he didn’t agree with.

Zinke is the subject of at least three ethics investigations. As chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, Grijalva now has the power to push for more transparency in those inquiries. But Zinke is just part of the problem, the Tucson Democrat said.

“I think that if he were to resign or be sent away,” Grijalva said, “the legacy of kind of turning over Interior to the fossil fuel industry and the extraction industry is not going to go away. So there’s still things to look at.”

He was one of several members of Congress who boycotted President Trump’s inauguration in 2017. But he also made headlines when he worked closely with the current chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, with Bishop, the current chair of the committee, about the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Now that he will have the formal power of leading a committee, Grijalva promises to look at environmental issues.

“What I think you can expect is a return to giving prominence to the conservation side that hasn’t been there in the last two years,” he said. “And any legislation that continues to rip away at our bedrock environmental laws, we’re not going to waste time on it.”

Grijalva said he also plans to focus on issues in Indian country, on protecting wildlife and the Endangered Species Act, preserving public lands, and the elephant in the room – climate change.

“Climate change has been scrubbed from the discussion,” Grijalva said. “Peer review has been severely handicapped. Panels of scientists have been eliminated and you don’t talk about climate change, you don’t talk about science anymore when you’re making decisions.”

He wants to change that. But Kathleen Sgamma, president of the industry group Western Energy Alliance, is not thrilled about a Democrat, specifically a politically progressive one such as Grijalva, taking the helm and, as she sees it, stirring things up.

She called Grijalva “extremely hostile to oil and natural gas development, economic development – ranching, mining, timber – any kind of development on federal lands.”

She said she’s not worried about losing too much ground, though – mainly because of partisan gridlock in Congress.

“It’s unfortunate that Congress cannot come together and find some compromises on natural resource issues,” she said, “but that’s just the nature of Washington, D.C.”

Others, though, have more faith in Grijalva’s ability to move things forward. Kieran Suckling, director of the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, is among them.

He argued Grijalva has “been able to broker deals Republicans both in the House and the Senate to protect the environment.”

Suckling is not a fan, however, of the current chair: “Bishop is really one of the most anti-environmental congressmen in Congress.”

Suckling sees Grijalva as an ally, and for good reason. Grijalva is on the advisory board of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute and has been vocal about prioritizing the environment.

For his part, Bishop issued a written statement in response to the transition.

“We look to continue being active next Congress as we move into doubling down on President Trump’s top notch environment and energy policies,” he wrote.

Whether he’ll be able to do that with Grijalva at the helm is an open question, but Grijalva is hopeful there will be bipartisanship on the committee. Still, regarding common ground with the former chair, Grijalva was modestly optimistic.

“We both like baseball,” he ventured. “I don’t know if we sometimes see the sky the same color, politically speaking, probably rarely. But you know that’s part of what we need in this Congress is a level of civility and respect for one another’s opinions. He’s shown that to me and I hope I’ve shown that to him.”

Grijalva will take over the chairmanship in January 2019.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Arizona PBS/Cronkite News’ Alexis Egeland and Imani Stevens contributed reporting to this piece.